Joshua Jackson and Rebecca Hall star in "Lay the Favorite." (Frank Masi, Radius TWC )
What has happened to director Stephen Frears?
The filmmaker of so many satisfying and sophisticated comedies and dramas has seemed a bit off his game since his best picture Oscar nomination for 2006's brilliant "The Queen," with Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth in the days after Princess Diana's death. But his new comedy, "Lay the Favorite," is beyond the pale.
If you're not a betting man or woman, the title might lead you to believe the movie is about bedding the right one. But this is a comedy about the shady sports-book scene and an unlikely prodigy in the shapely form of a naive Las Vegas cocktail waitress named Beth (Rebecca Hall). It is based on Beth Raymer's memoir and adapted by screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis, who has had a hand in some very sharp romantic capers, including "High Fidelity" with Frears.
Romance and capers exist in "Lay the Favorite," they just aren't played well. In addition to the normally excellent Hall (see "Please Give" or the "The Town" if you haven't), the cast is a solid one, capable of pulling off these sorts of hijinks.
Bruce Willis, as her bookie boss Dink, sports very bad Bermuda shorts and stick-thin white legs that make for at least one laugh. Catherine Zeta-Jones, as his scarily skinny and controlling wife Tulip, is far too shrill to amuse. And Vince Vaughn's Rosie, drug-fueled and doing illegal book in New York and offshore, is a total waste of a funny man. Joshua Jackson shows up around the edges as nice-guy Jeremy, who might help Beth put her life on a better track, though it's hard to see how Beth would go for him.
But then it's better not to try to make sense of anything. Beth may love betting — but the filmmakers love it more. If they were going for authenticity, they have certainly managed that with dialogue so dense with arcane bookmaking terms and details about how to do deals that it's difficult to keep up.
Essentially Beth keeps getting better at making money, soon throwing all those terms around like a pro. She's also a major ego boost for her mentor, Dink, which makes Tulip antsy enough to get her fired. Good-guy Jeremy and bad-guy Rosie are the reasons Beth decides to start over in New York. Dink's business suffers, someone makes off with a bunch of money they shouldn't have. Rosie's business gets in hot water; I think the feds are involved. Beth is in the middle — which sounds more interesting than it is.
What is missing is that all-important connective tissue that ties everything together. Crises come barreling down like Mack trucks — you can see them a mile away. The characters are badly drawn across the board; no one gets a pass. Whether or not Beth, Dink, Rosie or the rest, get out of their various scrapes is beside the point. The far more critical question is when will Frears get his mojo back? I'm hoping that's a surer bet.
'Lay the Favorite'
MPAA rating: R for language throughout, some sexual content, brief drug use and nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: At Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood
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